The last time a player named Highsmith wore No. 30 and started for the Miami Hurricanes, A.J. Highsmith wasn’t born yet.
His father, former running back Alonzo Highsmith, capped his legendary UM career by running for 119 yards in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl against Penn State – the school current Canes coach Al Golden and defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio would play for a few years later.
More than 25 years later, D’Onofrio and Golden are giving Alonzo’s son his first college start in UM’s home opener against Bethune-Cookman (2-0) at noon Saturday at Sun Life Stadium.
For A.J., it has been a much longer journey to a starting job than it was for his father. The younger Highsmith spent two years as Jacory Harris’ backup at quarterback before Highsmith switched to safety last year, a position he hadn’t played since middle school. A knee injury to three-year starter Vaughn Telemaque last week has given Highsmith an opportunity to excel as a starter. And he doesn’t want to squander it.
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“It’s a big thing for me – especially with everything I’ve been through with the old staff, waiting all this time,” said Highsmith, a 6-foot, 208-pound fourth-year junior who has one solo tackle and one assisted tackle in roughly 35 combined snaps on defense and special teams this season.
“It’s a big step. But it’s only the first step. We have to keep getting better, myself and the rest of the team. I just want to contribute and make plays to help the team win.”
A STRUGGLING DEFENSE
Coaches hope Highsmith’s leadership abilities from playing quarterback can help guide a young defense that has allowed 84 total points in its first two games.
“A.J. played outstanding [at Kansas State], did a great job,” Golden said. “He still has a long way to go, but he really played well when he was in there. He’s smart and he’s unselfish on special teams.”
The elder Highsmith, a scout with the Green Bay Packers the last 14 years, will not be able to attend Saturday’s game because he was recently promoted to senior personnel executive and has relocated to Green Bay, Wis., from Texas. But Alonzo Sr. said he will follow the game on his laptop computer. Saturday’s game will be televised by ESPN3.
“What I’ve always told him was, ‘Do not let them break your will,’ ” Highsmith Sr. said of his son. “You keep plugging along and you keep pushing and you keep pushing and eventually they’ll have to answer the door.
“The biggest thing I saw him do against Kansas State was just be decisive. When you make a decision, you go at it 100 miles an hour and just play reckless. He needs to keep doing that.”
A.J. Highsmith, who is set to graduate in December with a degree in sports administration, went into fall camp looking to compete with junior Kacy Rodgers for a starting safety job. But he slipped down the depth chart as freshman Deon Bush began to impress coaches. Saturday, Bush is also expected to make his first college start alongside Highsmith and he said he’ll be counting on him to help out.
“A.J. is a great person, great role model and he knows that safety position like a coach,” Bush said. “He’s somebody that helps me all the time – along with Vaughn and Kacy. He really knows the game and he’s really coming along. He was just waiting for a breakout.”
A MATTER OF LEADERSHIP
Highsmith Sr., whose other son, Alonzo Jr., is a starting linebacker at Arkansas, said he’s expecting a lot from A.J. in terms of leadership.
“I told him, ‘You’re 21 years old. You’ve been in this program. You understand what Hurricanes football is about better than anybody out there,’ ” said Highsmith Sr., who sent his son video clips of NFL safeties to study and had him talk with Packers safeties coach Darren Perry in the offseason.
Highsmith Sr. also hopes the presence of some UM greats will motivate his son.
“He’s been with me and [former receiver] Michael Irvin. He has listened to me and [former running back] Melvin Bratton and all my friends talk about the stories about Miami,” Highsmith Sr. said. “He understands what winning is and what Hurricanes football is supposed to be like. So, I expect more out of him as a leader.
“A lot of people look at this team different ways. I look at it as a young team struggling to find an identity. Young guys being thrust to the forefront, playing not to make mistakes. They need to let their hair down and just go. I’ve been in a game where we’ve lost by 50 points and turned around and beat that same team three weeks later. This is all part of the game. It’s a learning process. We’ll get better from it.”